Kosovo’s underground club and music scene is a treasure trove. Buried deep within the unassuming theatres, warehouses, and even homes of the capital Pristina lies one of Europe’s most energetic and autonomous nightlife communities. “Parties are welcomed with open arms regardless of what is happening on the news. People are tired. Most of them are broke. Work is limited due to corruption. So, what do we do? We fucking party. We’ve got nothing to lose,” DJ Rron Kurtolli explains.
Undeterred by economic hardship and low wages, a small network of local music-lovers has selflessly forged an underground utopia that far outstrips their meagre resources. Making the most of the equipment, spaces, and sounds available to them, Kosovo’s close-knit underground community is rapidly flourishing. In part, this thriving dance movement, where new nights and performers are introduced almost daily, is down to the country’s young population — 70 percent of which are under the age of 35 — as well as the speed with which word spreads in such a small country.
But what distinguishes Kosovo’s scene most is its social harmony. There is a respect and tolerance for new sounds, with subcultures easily absorbed into the inclusive and dynamic field: open queer nights such as Prishtine is Burning cater to the LGBTQ+ community, while emerging music collectives like Angry Youth continue to challenge the techno-heavy landscape with multi-genre sounds. Kosovo finds room for this variety while still retaining the guerrilla spirit of a club culture that was a part of the country before it even existed.
In 2002 — six years before Kosovo gained independence — a train called The Road of Peace Train pulled out of Pristina’s railway station, which during the war had seen an influx of refugees, acted as a shelter for civilians, and even functioned as a maternity ward at the peak of the conflict. Onboard this train were a group of Serbian and Albanian ravers, representative of countries which, just three years previously, were in the midst of violent conflict. Now, they were united by the post-war explosion in electronic music, and, clutching camcorders, the group danced across the territory of the former Yugoslavia to electro, Detroit house, and techno. Eager to preserve the authentic energy of the Train, the station was turned into Bahnhof, a well-respected club that has since closed down.
The death of Bahnhof is indicative. At present, club closures (and a dearth of supportive venues in the first place) are pushing promoters and artists to improvise with whatever spaces are available to them. But as long as demand is still growing, Kosovo’s DJs, artists, and promoters will make these nights happen.
We spoke to some of the people behind Kosovo’s underground explosion.
A nail artist by day and a DJ by night, Mátale has been instrumental in sculpting queer and female representation in Pristina’s underground. Her night Prishtinë Is Burning, which initially started as a small gathering and party in her own home, has turned into a haven not only for the LGBTQ+ community but also for the city’s young party-goers, who want to experience sounds from across the spectrum in a safe environment. Now that Prishtinë Is Burning has grown exponentially (pretty much through word of mouth) Mátale’s attention is split three-way between the night, DJing, and a new venture, Bijat (Albanian for “daughters”) that aims to bring together a female and queer DJ collective.
“I love the freedom that people have when they come to these parties. And that’s why I think they’re getting bigger,” she says. “We started with like five drag queens and now there are a lot more. Even the people I meet who may not be part of the LGBTQ+ community ask when the next party is. You know, it’s not just about the community — it’s everyone that wants to enjoy it. It’s a fun party. And even if they don’t dance to the music they just want to come and see what’s happening.”
Currently based in Amsterdam, but more often than not in Pristina pushing the scene’s sonic boundaries with his seasoned selections and bass-orientated productions, Zgjim is keen to inculcate new sounds within the city’s underground scene. This can be a tough task, given how dominant techno and house have been since the scene’s inception.
“Now when I go out in Pristina, I catch myself hearing stuff that actually gets me excited,” he tells me. “A couple of years ago, I played Ballroom and Jersey Club to five people dancing and 20 smoking outside; now the situation looks different. A lot of people say, ‘it’s too heavy’, or ‘it’s weird’, because they don’t initially understand. But they are still curious and willing to endure to the point where they start enjoying the music. The scene is small and things just pass around really quickly.”
A multi-genre collective, label, and club night established by Lum Ceku and Zgjim Elshani in 2012, Angry Youth are fostering some of the best producing and DJing talent across Kosovo by disrupting the typical musical order of things; whether it be introducing new music on their Radio Urban FM show, or spinning sound worlds that diverge from the scene’s usual diet of techno. And although this has caused them to clash with crowds in the past, their offerings of bass, footwork, and grime are exactly what the scene needs to avoid stagnation.
“In Kosovo, you witness how something new becomes real”
“We were not really associated with the club scene or club music in general, so a lot of people didn’t know what to make of us in the beginning,” they tell me. “It was almost like a clash of senses because we were claiming to be DJs but what we played and what they were used to hearing from DJs to that point was worlds apart. For a long time, we also set up most of our own shows, without any budget or earnings. We were very lucky to have some supportive friends who owned spaces where we could organise our parties, even though I’m sure some of them didn’t really enjoy the music at the time.”
“Kosovo is a small country, and the local scene is made up of different groups and subcultures, each trying to do their own thing. We all share the same circumstances and difficulties but it is amazing how these obstacles can be overcome by linking up. This synergy draws different crowds, and you witness how something new becomes real.”
As resident DJ at Zone Electronic Series (and previously at Bahnhof) and founder of Kult-Urë, a social enterprise that raises awareness of the importance of art and music in a society marred by political strife, Rron represents the conscience of the underground scene. An established DJ within the Kosovar scene and internationally, for him, “It’s about the positive energy that’s created when I visit new places and create bonds with strangers just through my choice of sounds. If I get to inspire at least one person to do likewise, then I am happy.”
“What I truly hope for the future of Kosovo’s underground club and music scene is to keep away from commercialised ideas that try to put a halt on creative dynamism,” he continues. “I want my colleagues and new, incoming artists to not give in to market demands. The market is in no way the sole judge of whether your artistic expression is good or not, so I hope that young folk don’t get discouraged by it.”
Toton was one of the founding fathers of the Kosovar underground — from starting the country’s first independent radio station, Urban FM, to supporting emerging artists, he is as much part of the scene now as ever, and is set to release new music soon.
“There was one event where the club owner shot my turntables with a gun — so yeah, you could say there were hardships”
Watching the scene develop over the years he has seen it all. “At first, many promoters and club owners wouldn’t trust us; then they would book us but ask to change the music; then would rip us off with entrance fees. There was one event where the club owner shot my turntables with a gun — so yeah, you could say there were hardships. But I look back at it as a very funny period.”
“To be frank, in Pristina any scene will always have an underground feel, be it heavy metal or punk or electronica. When me and a couple of friends started out there was no scene, only bits and pieces, but surprisingly enough, we got accepted very quickly: it was only a couple of months between buying our first records, learning how to use turntables, and our events being attended by 200 people. Although we were still young and didn’t have any idea what we were doing, the crowds were respectful and they grew with us. Some of the people from the early days still visit my shows, and it feels great!”
Hailing from the southern town of Prizren, Visar, aka Pandaudio, has been a key figure in Kosovo’s underground scene since he first started out in 2004, playing regional clubs and festivals and then taking his talents abroad. Merging soothing elements of techno with airy ambience, his soundscapes take you on hypnotic, otherworldly journeys.
“We have already overcome that ‘from scratch’ era,” he says. “We are now working on building it, by emphasising quality over quantity, and this can be only achieved by cooperating with each other. In a very small country like this, collaboration and feedback are very important. The scene seems to be developing in lots of directions, but I guess we shall wait and see what the outcome is. I doubt that it’ll end in tourism to Kosovo, though. Artists need to be educated by experiencing different crowds, not only local ones, so they can get an idea of what they need to focus on back home to develop further.”